Miami Heat – San Antonio Spurs Finals Preview: The Tim Duncan Problem


May 19, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (21) brings the ball up the court during the first quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies in game one of the Western Conference finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at AT

If you’ve watched the Miami Heat play at all these past three years, you know that they will almost always trap the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. It is a very good strategy to best augment their strengths on defense (insane athleticism on the perimeter) while simultaneously thwarting an exploitation of their biggest weaknesses (dribble penetration that abuses their lack of size in the paint). However there is an obvious weakness to this strategy, while the ball handler is getting doubled the big is rolling free.

Some bigs, like Roy Hibbert, take advantage of this free space by getting a jump on deep post position. This poses problems for Miami, as you can see from his game log last series, but those problems can be solved with some well timed stunting and crisper rotations. This is obviously much easier said than done and Hibbert’s unique “verticality” (RIP “verticality”, you had a hell of a run) made it so Miami never really was able to effectively stop him but, in theory, there was a solution to the Hibbert problem. Tim Duncan, like his all-time great pedigree would suggest, is not so easily solvable.

On a standard high pick-and-roll, you cannot leave Duncan alone for long or he will burn you with an elbow jumper he is extremely adept at making, especially from the left side:

* The two regular season games Miami and San Antonio played this year came down to an underhanded chess match between the two coaches that involved a mass benching of each team’s Big Three in subsequent games. While this was an affably cute gesture in the regular season, it makes it rather difficult to project what will happen in this series with such a contaminated evidence pool to draw from in the already too small a sample size of two games. So bare with me while I produce evidence that involves some players we will likely see only in limited minutes in this series (if at all), the concepts are still the same, so try and focus on that. 

Here Norris Cole and Udonis Haslem are going to trap Tony Parker after Duncan sets the pick and leave Duncan wide open at that left elbow spot he loves so dearly.

What makes Duncan so dangerous is that the jumper he took is only one of the many possibilities that could have grown organically out of that possession. Look at the play frozen immediately after Duncan catches the pass from Parker:

Duncan is an excellent passer, he is in fact third in the league in assist rate for qualified big men, and becomes even better when he is facilitating from the elbow. On this play you have Kawhi Leonard, a respectable 37 percent from three, and Danny Green, a you-better-respect 43 percent from three, behind the line and Tiago Splitter in perfect position for an easy layup off the baseline cut. All this is splayed out to Duncan from the elbow and he not only has all these shooting options available to him on the court (something, say, Indiana lacked), he has the ability to get the ball to these options (another thing Indiana struggles with).

Memphis adopted a Miami-like trapping scheme on defense for the pick-and-roll ball handler last series versus San Antonio in an attempt to stop the dribble penetration they had been uncharacteristically giving up, and Duncan displayed just how difficult it is to do that with him on the court. Here Marc Gasol and Tony Allen trap Manu on a side pick-and-roll with Duncan.

Duncan gets into the lane freely and Quincy Pondexter is forced to play crisis level defense by leaving Green to cut Duncan off, Bayless helps instead of rotating to Green, and Duncan finds the wide open shooter for an easy three.

It’s a simple enough sequence, but one that may come to haunt Miami in the Finals. The Spurs offensive machine runs so effectively because it is constantly producing more options as the defense desperately tries to take just one away. Stop Tony Parker and Manu’s dribble penetration by trapping? Leave Duncan to cause havoc in the paint and kick out to open shooters.

Indiana had its greatest success versus Miami’s defense when Roy Hibbert and David West were able to effectively pass on the move. As they rolled free off a Heat trap, they often had an opening of a couple of seconds where they could see the court as the help was coming and find where the open shooters/cutters were:

However, not only was Indiana’s shooting not always reliable, but Hibbert’s passing (especially on the move) is a work in progress and West’s was inconsistent game to game. More often than not they couldn’t get the ball to these open shooters (or the shots just didn’t fall) and the turnovers that resulted in their attempts ended up becoming a fatal weakness.

Duncan, though, is consistent and his passing happens to be much more a strength than a weakness. The Heat were forced to tweak their trapping scheme against Indiana to adjust to the sizes of the rolling bigs but Duncan’s vast multifariousness provides Miami with even more problems. If they leave him on the perimeter he will take (and more often than not, make) that elbow jumper and if help comes immediately Duncan will find the open shooter or cutter they will be ceding to guard him.

Abandoning the trap scheme completely, something the Heat were uncomfortable doing even against Indiana, when Tony Parker is the one threatening dribble penetration may not be an option. A more nuanced approach will have to be taken and it will need to be implemented faster than it was versus the Pacers. Whatever the solution, Tim Duncan’s presence is going to turn what Miami does on defense from a strength to a weakness and just like he’s done for going on sixteen seasons now, he is going to serve as the unsolvable puzzle the Heat must figure out to win.